January 1, 2011

Steve Solloway: Making the most when he's getting the chance

His eyes scanned the list of names of men invited to the Maine Red Claws' training camp. That day in November, his mind weighed their credentials and pedigrees.

click image to enlarge

Eugene Spates has brought a hearty smile and a knowledge of his role as a member of the Maine Red Claws.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Fifteen players, including himself. Eugene Spates was impressed.

"Ten off that list would make the team. I thought my chances were slim. Confidence? I had no confidence, I can tell you that."

Spates spoke with that broad grin that's become familiar to teammates and fans. He sat on a bleacher in Hill Gymnasium on the University of Southern Maine campus Thursday. The team had just finished a morning practice. Ten hours later, the Red Claws would beat the Erie BayHawks, a tough D-League opponent.

Spates scored 21 of his team's 120 points. He shot 5 of 7 from the floor and 3 of 3 for 3-pointers. He had three assists. He didn't turn the ball over once. All this after coming off the bench for several stretches that added up to about 24 minutes, or half the game.

He was named player of the game, a first for him in this league. As he was interviewed for the radio audience, Spates couldn't contain his grin. He's heading into the new year and he still has a job as a pro basketball player. So tenuous was his future, he had registered for a test to qualify for a job with the U.S. Border Patrol.

"I canceled that. I'm still here."

He played three seasons for Northeastern after transferring from a junior college in his home state of Texas. Southern Methodist had become the school of his choice, but Coach Jimmy Tubbs left abruptly when the NCAA came around to investigate possible infractions. Someone pointed Spates in the direction of Northeastern and he jumped. "I really didn't have any other options."

Spates averaged 7.5 points a game over three seasons and 95 games at Northeastern. He really wasn't on basketball's radar. He got an agent who found him a spot on BC Mess in Luxembourg for the 2009-10 season.

Luxembourg? Spates went to the Internet and pulled up maps of Europe. "I couldn't find Luxembourg. My agent said to look between Germany and Belgium. I still couldn't find it. And then I did. You mean this little itty bitty country?"

The 6-foot-8 Spates averaged 34.6 ppg and 13.2 rebounds for a team in a town of not much more than 3,200. "I didn't expect the level of play to be as poor as it was." His teammates all had day jobs.

When BC Mess crossed the border for games in Belgium, Spates played in arenas with no heat, poor lighting and bent rims. "Some of the courts weren't made of wood. I think it was concrete."

Spates returned to Boston. He caught a break when his coach at Northeastern got a phone call from Austin Ainge. "Got any players I might be interested in?" Bill Coen mentioned two. One of them was Spates.

"It was just a name and a phone number," said Ainge after Thursday night's win over Erie. Coen didn't pitch Spates. The world has a lot of good kids without eye-opening talent who understand their roles.

Ainge called Spates, inviting him to play in some pickup games. Weeks later, Ainge asked him to the Red Claws' tryout session at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

When the D-League draft rolled around, the Red Claws' president, Jon Jennings, and Ainge made Spates their seventh-round pick. He was the 99th player chosen. Expectations weren't very high.

Spates worked harder than some in training camp. When Stephane Lasme injured his foot and Magnum Rolle got hurt, the Red Claws were suddenly short of big men. The player who was about to be cut was kept.

(Continued on page 2)

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